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REPUBLICAN REIGN: ORANGE COUNTY CONSERVATIVES AND
THE PURSUIT OF POWER
.

Democrats' Inferiority Complex

Party: They enjoyed a brief heyday in the '70s but have been slipping ever since. 'This is the lowest of the low,' one veteran strategist says.

July 11, 1996|LEN HALL and MATT LAIT | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Orange County Democrats hold no county, state or federal elected office other than a few judgeships. The last Democrat to hold a countywide office was former Treasurer-Tax Collector Robert L. Citron--the man most often blamed for the county's disastrous bankruptcy.

"It's never been this bad as far as I can remember," said George Urch of Garden Grove, a party strategist for 16 years. "This is the lowest of the low."

As former Orange County Democratic Chairman Howard Adler put it, the party is "dead in the water."

But it wasn't always that way.

The Democrats' heyday in Orange County came shortly after a county native--Richard Milhous Nixon--became embroiled in the Watergate scandal. As Nixon and his aides plunged deeper into the political abyss and trooped before congressional hearings broadcast live on national television, the Democrats in Orange County enjoyed a registration boom and actually took over briefly as the dominant party.

"They were always helped by the unions, which were much stronger than they are today," said Tom Rogers of San Juan Capistrano, who was chairman of the county Republicans in the early 1970s.

In 1978, for example, 3,000 more Democrats voted in the general election than Republicans. Democratic Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. carried Orange County that year.

The registration advantage translated in the late 1970s into the election of the largest number of Democrats in county history. Four assemblymen, two congressmen, one state senator and a state controller were Orange County Democrats, as well as three of the five county supervisors.

In less than a decade, however, nearly all these seats would be lost.

Political pundits theorize the downfall began in 1976 with the fraud conviction of Dr. Louis Cella, a multimillionaire Democratic booster who worked at what was then Mission Community Hospital (now Mission Hospital Regional Medical Center). Federal prosecutors charged him with embezzling Medi-Cal funds from local hospitals and spending the money on political campaigns.

In 1974, Cella was the state's largest individual donor, loaning or contributing $500,000 to more than 50 political candidates and causes. His ally was Richard O'Neill, the San Juan Capistrano rancher and the party's other wealthy donor in Orange County who retreated from political causes for several years after Cella was sent to prison.

"The Democrats not only lost a valuable funding source . . . but the party lost its continuity, it lost things such as the ability to have a paid staff," said Dan Wooldridge, a longtime county political consultant. "After that, you saw a steady stream of Democratic incumbents being defeated."

Support for the Democratic Party eroded even further as the county became more affluent and conservative.

The failed campaign of then-President Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale in 1980 was a severe blow. "Reagan's message of less government, a stronger defense and get tough on crime sold very well with Democrats, especially when you see very liberal candidates on the top of the ticket," Urch said.

The Republicans also began to use a potent campaign tactic first championed by Democrat O'Neill: the absentee ballot. O'Neill, a former state party chair, helped pass legislation making it possible to vote by absentee ballot.

"They took the absentee ballot idea and ran with it," O'Neill said. "You need a lot of money to make an absentee ballot run. That's where a party apparatus . . . can help."

As liberal Democrats continued to lose, traditional financial supporters began to disappear. The major developers who typically supported both parties--the Irvine Co., William Lyon and the Mission Viejo Co.--gave up on the Democrats, Adler said.

At the same time, according to Adler, came the emergence of Rob Hurtt, a container manufacturer from Garden Grove who is now the Republican leader of the state Senate, and the Allied Business PAC that he co-founded with other wealthy Republicans, now known as the California Independent Business PAC.

"They were like the O'Neill and Cella for the Democrats in the 1970s, people who were prepared to put up substantial sums of their personal fortunes," Adler said. "They dramatically changed the equation."

Today, the pressure to become a Republican in Orange County is immense, Democrats say.

Most Orange County charities and social organizations are controlled by Republicans, said attorney Wylie A. Aitken, chairman of the Orange County Democratic Foundation.

"If people are politically on the fence, they'll generally register as Republicans just because of the pressure," he said. "Republicans dominate nearly every aspect of Orange County life."

Even getting elected to a local school board or city council is a major achievement for a Democrat. Once they do, Republican leaders are eager to persuade them to switch parties. Many do.

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